‘Alya Red: A Computational Heart’ wins 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

The concept of an image being worth a thousand words has never been truer than in the field of medical animation, illustration, or as many now call it medical visualization.

“Instead of just hired hands or artists wearing berets, medical illustrators are becoming a more integral part of the research team,” said David Rini, a certified medical illustrator and an associate professor in the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine and the Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at John Hopkins. “We are blending the line between visualizer and visionary, so the medical visualizer is not just recording lab work, but becoming a more integral part of the research process.”

The project winners from the 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge exemplify this growing field with a three-dimensional computer simulation of a beating heart among the first-place winners. The video project called, “Alya Red: A Computational Heart” combines illustration, three-dimensional renderings, and live-action video to describe the science of the heart.

“Understanding our organs—and the heart in particular—in deep detail is one of the challenges of modern medicine,” said physicist Fernando Cucchietti of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – National Supercomputing Center in a statement. “Despite centuries of study, scientists are still largely baffled by the heart’s complex electrical choreography.”

Cuccietti, who helped produce the video, said that the most challenging part of the project was to get the heart fibers in the image to move in a realistic way. The team of scientific visualizers worked in collaboration with scientific engineers and graphic designers to develop videos and pictures that both interpret the data and create a visually appealing model. The heart merges modern medical imaging techniques with high-powered computing and the software was designed from scratch.

“The human heart is still one of the biggest mysteries in medicine and anatomy,” said narrator Paul Carpenter in the Alya Red video. “The main reason for our lack of understanding is the complexity of the heart’s structure and its phenotype.Until recently, the only way to describe cardiac fiber arrangements was with simplified models based on histological sections of animal hearts. Today, we can achieve a much better description of the fibers using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging using magnetic resonance to map the diffusion of water molecules along biological tissues.”

The international competition, now in its 10th year, honors recipients who use visual media to promote understanding of scientific research. The field of medical visualization and animation continues to expand and help doctors and patients to better understand complex conditions.

“We can now tell stories at a visual level that wasn’t possible before, especially around disease,” said Matt Faye, creative director at Visual Health Solutions, a multimedia communications company that has medical animations featured daily on Helathlinee and The Dr. Oz Show. “Previously, we had no way to imagine what a clogged artery looks like for example or understand what’s going on in the human body at a cellular and molecular level.”

Medical visualization offers a higher level of understanding for both patients and doctors and has become an important tool to aid communication.

“Every story has many ways you can tell it,” Faye said. “Some are better told with visuals, written word, or with dialogue. With our mixed media approach, we can decide what’s the best media to tell each part of the story. As we integrate visual communication into the larger health story, we can raise people’s understanding about their health giving them greater comfort and confidence.”

The Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge is sponsored jointly by journal Science and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

BodyMaps—featuring visuals from Visual Health Solutions—is an interactive visual search tool that allows users to explore the human body in 3-D.